How Birds Evolved from Dinosaurs – Scientific American
Over the past few decades, the study of feathered dinosaurs has reshaped our understanding of these ancient creatures. It is widely acknowledged that many feathered dinosaurs were incapable of soaring through the skies, unlike modern birds. However, recent research has uncovered surprising insights that suggest the feathers of these prehistoric reptiles might have been more birdlike than previously believed.
In 2019, a comprehensive analysis of fossils led to the revelation that feathers from a flightless dinosaur predominantly featured a distinct and more flexible variant of the keratin protein. This revelation challenged the existing notions about the composition of dinosaur feathers, as it was theorized that feathers had evolved molecularly over time to become more rigid, aligning with the flight capabilities of modern birds.
Yet, a recent study published in the October edition of Nature Ecology & Evolution has thrown a fascinating twist into this narrative. The research team, who also presented their findings at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting in Cincinnati on October 19, has brought to light a crucial factor that may have misled earlier interpretations of feather evolution.
The study demonstrates that fossilization can dramatically alter the composition of feather proteins, causing one type of keratin protein to mimic another. This revelation opens the door to the possibility that dinosaur feathers may have primarily contained the beta-keratin proteins, which are typically found in bird feathers. While this finding doesn’t necessarily imply that all feathered dinosaurs were capable of flight, it does prompt fresh inquiries into the evolution of feathers among these ancient creatures.
Julia Clarke, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not part of this study, emphasizes the importance of these findings. She notes that this research provides valuable insights into the transformation of the fossil record over time, shedding light on the chemical alteration processes that all structures undergo during the rock formation, liquefaction, and burial stages.
The study, led by paleontologist Tiffany Slater from University College Cork in Ireland and her colleagues, involved subjecting modern bird feathers to high-temperature conditions, simulating the extreme conditions that buried dinosaur feathers may have endured during the fossilization process. Surprisingly, the beta-keratins in these modern bird feathers transformed into the alpha-keratins, which are known for their flexibility and were previously believed to be dominant in dinosaur feathers. This suggests a similar transformation could have occurred in dinosaur feathers due to fossilization.
To further investigate, the research team examined a roughly 50-million-year-old bird feather and a 125-million-year-old feather from the nonavian dinosaur Sinornithosaurus. The results were astonishing. The bird feather appeared to consist mainly of alpha-keratins, despite expectations that it should have been rich in beta-keratins. In contrast, the dinosaur feather primarily contained beta-keratins, implying that it hadn’t been subjected to sufficient heat to alter its protein composition.
The straightforward interpretation of these findings is that fossilization, with its distorting effects on feather proteins, may have led previous researchers astray in assuming that dinosaur and bird feathers were vastly different on a molecular level, as Slater suggests. However, it’s worth noting that the conditions the team tested in this study might not precisely replicate the complex processes that occurred over centuries of burial.
Molecular paleontologist Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, who was involved in the 2019 research, highlights the complexity of the effect that fossilization has on feather proteins. In her own research, feathers exposed to even higher temperatures retained their proteins when left in sediment, as opposed to being removed from it, as was the case in the current study. Schweitzer believes that the impact of fossilization on feather proteins might be more intricate and not yet fully comprehended.
The prevailing scientific opinion suggests that feathers did not evolve for the sole purpose of flight. Instead, they likely served functions such as keeping dinosaurs warm and aiding in mate attraction. Some nonavian dinosaurs did exhibit limited flight capabilities, while others, despite their inability to fly, displayed wing-flapping behaviors.
In the grand scheme of flight evolution, the composition of keratin in feathers might be just a small piece of the puzzle. As biologist Matthew Shawkey from Ghent University in Belgium points out, factors such as feather shape, the presence of veins, and their arrangement relative to each other could be more crucial in understanding the evolution of flight. The question remains whether a feather made of alpha-keratin would truly be as fragile as some suggest, raising further intriguing mysteries for scientists to explore.
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